January 6, 2008 / 5:05 PM / 12 years ago

Polar bears vie with oil for US government focus

By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Jan 6 (Reuters) - The U.S. government will soon decide whether polar bears are in danger because global warming is melting their icy habitat. But last week, the government offered some of that habitat as a place to drill for oil.

Strangely enough, both those decisions are the province of the Interior Department.

The department's Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to announce a decision by Wednesday whether polar bears should be listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A department spokesman said that deadline would probably pass with no decision.

Last week, the department's Minerals Management Service announced its plan to offer oil and gas exploration rights in February to 29.7 million acres (12.02 million hectares) in the remote Chukchi Sea off the northwest Alaskan coast.

There are about 16,000 polar bears in the region and environmentalists, especially those who pushed for the polar bear habitat to be protected, were outraged.

"The polar bear's existence is increasingly threatened by the impact of climate change-induced loss of sea ice," Margaret Williams of the World Wildlife Fund said in a statement. "The chances for the continued survival of this icon of the Arctic will be greatly diminished if its remaining critical habitat is turned into a vast oil and gas field."

Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service, called the decision "a good balance" that would allow exploration while still protecting "the resources important to the coastal residents." A spokeswoman questioned whether companies would even want to explore such distant waters.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican, does not favor listing the big white bear as endangered.

"I strongly believe that adding them to the list is the wrong move at this time," Palin wrote in Saturday's New York Times. "My decision is based on a comprehensive review by state wildlife officials of scientific information from a broad range of climate, ice and polar bear experts."

GONE BY 2050?

Palin said the Endangered Species Act is not the right tool to protect polar bears if they were endangered, which she disputed. "Polar bears are more numerous now than they were 40 years ago," she said.

The future may be another question.

The U.S. Geological Survey has predicted polar bears could disappear from places where Arctic sea ice is melting most rapidly, along the northern coasts of Alaska and Russia. The same report said two-thirds of the world's polar bears could be gone by 2050 if predictions about melting sea ice hold true.

Polar bears depend on sea ice as a platform for hunting seals, their main prey. Without enough sea ice, polar bears would be forced onto land, where they are inefficient hunters.

The first polar bears probably first appeared about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, and the species has not lived through a period as warm as the one predicted by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for this century.

The Chukchi Sea is in that patch of the polar bears' habitat, according to Melanie Duchin of Greenpeace, who said allowing exploratory drilling for oil and gas in that area is a double threat to the animals.

"Oil lease sales in the Chukchi Sea not only threaten polar bears directly through oil spills, industrial noise and other disturbances that come with oil exploration, production and transportation, they also threaten the polar bear by producing more fossil fuels that will exacerbate global warming and melting of polar bears' sea ice habitat," Duchin said by e-mail.

Conservationists sued the Minerals Management Service last year for approving oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort Sea, another part of the Arctic Ocean. The plaintiffs argued the service rushed the approval without fully analyzing potential environmental impact or a sufficiently public process.

A stay was granted in that case until final arguments were heard, which happened in December. A ruling is expected in the coming months. (For more Reuters information on the environment, see blogs.reuters.com/environment/ )

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